Privilege Blog

Lessons From Shock And Absurdity, Or, Saturday Morning at 8:37am

On Thursday, a homeless woman slapped me in the face.

It wasn’t as bad as it sounds.

My walking commute takes me through a San Francisco neighborhood frequented by many street people. On any given day, I may pass 4-8 people sleeping in doorways, and another 5-10 people who, to phrase it broadly, don’t participate in our primary social system. I wish everyone slept warmly in this world, but they don’t, and few of us reach 56 without that understanding.

On Thursday, I looked up ahead on the sidewalk as I walked, and saw a street woman coming towards me. Her hair was tangled, her skin dirty, she wore baggy pants and a sweatshirt. Her face was covered with cuts, but still pretty under the wear and tear. Literally torn, in this case.

I had a more emotional reaction than I usually do when passing a street person. She looked sad, and as though she was in pain. The thought flashed through my mind, “Ah, how hard to be a woman on the street. How much threat, abuse, rape, beatings does a woman like that suffer? I looked at her face, a little longer than I would have, given my usual level of attention and feelings.

As she passed me, all the while looking straight ahead, she flapped her arm out terribly quickly and slapped me lightly right in the mouth. Her hand was covered in her sweatshirt cuff and I felt the fabric.

I was, as you can imagine, shocked.

“Ow!” I said, even though it hadn’t hurt. It was an exclamation of outrage and a little fear, not pain. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, without slowing her pace as she walked away.

The oddest thing. As though she’d just bumped me in passing. As though she hadn’t meant to. As though her arm had done it like a dog or toddler off the leash.

And of all the things that I’ve experienced in the last 6 months, this small incident drew me most vivid sketch of myself. I offer this to you because maybe you’ve had a similar moment, or maybe imagining happening to you will spark similar insight.

  1. The first thing I thought was, “How stupid of me. Significant Other will tell me with good reason that I do not keep my guard up sufficiently in an urban environment. I should have known not to look at her face. I should have moved to the edge of the sidewalk.” I am prone to examine every problem starting from, “Was this my fault?” You know, I like that quality in myself. I think I’ll keep it. I believe it leads to better answers.
  2. Then I started to worry about germs. What if she had AIDS? Of all the things. I kept my lips pressed together through the remaining commute so that no microbes would enter my mouth, and then I washed my lips on arrival at my office. So many dangers in this world, but I’ve always had a strange fear of toxic substances. Probably I can shift my focus of concern. Are we agreed?
  3. Note. My response to the woman assumed we shared something – being women most of all. We did, but less than I expected. Of course it’s harder to feel universal connection when you’re mired in survival.
  4. And finally, oddly, several minutes later I was flooded with a sense of well-being. Of gratitude. “How lucky!” I thought. “How lucky not to be her. To have the job I do, tough but rewarding, to live where I live, to have my dear Significant Other and my family? The education. The good fortune.” Proof positive of what I have always suspected; some of us are simply hard-wired to see good, protected by some mysterious endocrine system that doles out cheer. For this, I’m just going to say thank you. And remind myself that others who seem unnecessarily gloomy are living with different chemical systems that they do not control.

I ask, how would you have reacted, in this situation? Or have you met with a similar revelation of self, in some wholly unexpected moment, in a wholly unexpected spot? I’m still shaking my head and saying “Huh, who knew?” At 56 one’s experience of self is still full of new stuff.

Have a wonderful weekend.



98 Responses

  1. Some are born to sweet delight
    Some are born to endless night

    – William Blake

  2. Wow! I recall a few similar experiences, so I’d have to say I’d probably ignore her. Sounds like she had a lot of built up anger and resentment and decided to take it out on you, a sort of representation of everything or everyone she hates.

  3. I had an incident several years ago when I passed a homeless person who began to scream at me. I crossed the street but he continued to yell. I don’t recall what he said except, “You’re a fat ugly bitch.” I was shaken and went through a reaction very similar to yours. I wondered what I had done to incur such wrath. Was it my apparent good fortune? My health? Much later, in the retelling, it struck me as funny, especially since I looked pretty great at the time. Later still it made me very sad.

  4. The same day that President Reagan was shot I was walking on a fairly busy street in downtown Houston and a man walking by grabbed my crotch from behind. Meaning he didn’t just grab my butt but reached between my legs. I squealed (wouldn’t you?) and he trotted away. Once I got over the shock I told everyone that the President and I had both had rather alarming days.
    Being young and invincible I just chalked it up to one of those things. Still makes me wonder…..

  5. Aw, I’m sorry you got hit! But I think your response is great and understandable, especially #4. We are indeed lucky to have good lives, and not those of extreme hardship, like that woman.

    As to #1, you are not stupid and it was not your fault. This was an imbalanced person, who was impossible to avoid in a city situation.

    I live in NYC where it is common to encounter many homeless people on the street and subway. We have a more cold, disconnected approach here. I like to wear sunglasses to avoid people’s direct gaze, in general. It leads to less confrontation and I get to look without being seen ;)

  6. The demographics of the poor and homeless have changed significantly in the last decade – you may be surprised to find that she may have been “one of us” 8 or 10 years ago. More and more women of a certain age are slipping through the cracks, due to divorce, Bernie Madoff (a friend lost everything at 62), bad investments (stocks, bonds, real estate), lost careers and so on. Can you image the emotional toll of that slow slide into poverty and homelessness. We definitely are not in Kansas anymore Dorothy.
    I feel your shock and violation, that someone touched you in an aggressive manner, and I wonder about that unfortunate woman.
    By the way, I so relate to the germ phobia – I shudder at the thought of deadly bacteria!

    1. Well said — those “cracks” seem to be gaping holes to me nowadays, I fear those cracks more than I do bacteria. Too many people we read about had planned and saved and done the whole thing by the book when suddenly came a blameless conspiracy of circumstance + health + timing, and through the cracks they fell.

    2. Unlikely. Remember when the NYT was sure that we were all one paycheck away from homelessness? she’s most likely been an addict or alcoholic or both for years.

  7. I marvel at your ability to be calm at the time. I’m not sure I could have been. I feel very strongly about my personal space. And the germ issue would have flipped me out!!

  8. I would call the cops and press charges for an assault. Because the next time (and there is always a next time) she may have a knife or a razor hidden in her palm.

  9. Lisa, I’m sure you handled this as well as anyone could. As you know, this woman was almost certainly mentally ill–deep depression, bipolar disorder, psychosis, schizophrenia, or something we are not familar with. I would have been a bit shaken, but, like you, thankful for my own safe serene life.

    As a Christian (Episcopalian) who does not wear religion on my sleeve (far from it), I would have also wondered if she was an angel in disguise. This is the thing that always haunts me with homeless people. I feel uncomfortable averting my gave and not facing head on what they are having to face.

    1. Wow, yes! And how else could you have handled it? The way you describe it, there was nothing personal about the blow. You just happened to be the person it landed on. Sympathy and gratitude seem like perfectly reasonable reactions to me.

  10. The universe,God, karma, whatever has got your attention. With a blow to the lips. Is there something you have forgotten to say to someone?

    1. An angle I had not considered. In my case, it would be more likely to be something I did say, than something that I didn’t.

  11. I think you handled this very well. Not sure if I would or would not have. Sometimes I surprise myself at how well I handle things when they are happening, but always, always break down & fall apart later. I think you were lucky nothing worse happened. An awfully lot of people are strung out on drugs or have mental problems, so you never know what you might encounter. And yes, we are all very lucky. I say my prayers every night and count my blessings.

  12. No, nothing like this has happened to me. If it had, my reaction would have been similar to yours, minus the worry about germs. I have never forgotten the very pregnant young woman begging for cash near the old Emporium in SF that I gave money to in 1984 (back on the job after giving birth to my first child). And the woman who got on my express bus with a bloody mouth; it dawned on me years later that she had probably been belted by a man in the motels where she got on and that she was on her way to the county hospital.

  13. Ah yes, the homeless as an experience- it gets one thinking, and as a poet:

    Kathy Lundy Derengowski 5/31/11

    Bag Lady II

    The homeless woman rolls her cart
    With rusty grate and sticking wheel
    The household of a world apart
    Existence all too raw and real.

    I cannot help but look and see
    The blankets and the bottled water
    Embarrassed, she looks up at me
    I blush to see misfortune’s daughter.

    I wonder if possessions dear
    Are burdens she mistakes for treasure
    If choices are so cut and clear
    If we can ever hope to measure?

    I too have gathered many things
    The ones I want, the ones I need
    Yet ev’ry new desire brings
    Another pressure to succeed

    My own cart weighs me down some days
    So it is very clear to see
    We are alike, in many ways
    The bag lady, and me

  14. I had something similar–but less jarring–happen a few weeks ago walking to the Y from Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland. A young, slightly disheveled man approached me and said “I’ve just gotten out of prison.” Some opener that. At first I tried to walk briskly but he kept pace and kept talking. I decided to be present in the moment and just talk to the guy. It was broad daylight, we were coming up upon a row of restaurants–someone would hear me if I screamed. No need for that. We shared life stories in a few short blocks and by the time he hit me up for money–“sorry, none in my gym bag,” I said–we knew each other’s first names. “Bye Kathryn,” he said heading off to find a wealthier mark. “Bye Tony,” I replied, thinking I was glad I’d made that human connection after all.

  15. Skye:
    Unfortunately, you came into direct contact with one of the biggest problems in this country — the inability of the mental health community to reach –and sometimes the refusal of mental patients to take the medication–that could make a significant difference in their lives and possibly lead to a functional productive life. I know — I fight constantly with a daughter who literally refuses to take her medication and is not a homeless person only because I financially support her. I saw a documentary of a clinic (possibly in England) where the taking of medication is literally tied to their financial support by the government — they literally have to report to a clinic and take their medication in front of a nurse in a window every morning — and do so because it’s tied to their financial support. When will we learn here in U.S.? Do we always have to learn too late? I am indeed grateful for the life I lead — but I’m ashamed that I have not returned to the volunteer work I did for domestic violence that I gave up when my daughter reached fourth grade and I had science projects and school activities that took up time I didn’t have as a divorced mom — your reflection makes me want to be active again. So thank you —

    1. I’d been thinking about substance abuse, but of course mental illness is more likely, or a combination.

  16. I exerience that disconfort also when visiting San Francisco and some places here in LA. In fact there was a man asking for money accompanied my young children. I was so upset I called the police but found out I could do nothing. They knew about the man had done background checks but still they could do nothing. I don’t have the answer but I know I would have reacted as you did. I wouldn’t have thought of Aids on a cuff. But I certainly would have reated just as you had.

  17. Yup. The old Jackie Kennedy method of dark glasses helps to avoid people seeing you look at them. As to my reaction in such a situation ? I think I would have cried.

    1. This is the other possible reaction that the writer didn’t seem to have – she was being rude, staring at this woman’s face, possible with a look of pity or horror or sadness or whatever. It isn’t right to physically assault someone but perhaps she was just reminding you to mind your manners.

  18. I find it almost impossible to comment meaningfully here, but I know your experience will continue to resonate, with you and with many of your readers. I’m also one of the lucky ones, and while I haven’t been literally struck by one of the unlucky, I am figuratively struck, emotionally struck, by contending with their exclusion from our “social contract” — I am especially aware of this returning from European cities where it’s hard to ignore those who are marginalized by their lack of papers, of citizenship. Hard to know what is the best way to help — giving coins seems inadequate, even unwise, but ignoring humanity’s needs destroys one’s own humanity. . . sorry, I’m descending to the banal, I suspect. Your anecdote and reflections on same will continue to trouble both of us. Take care — hope you have a sunny weekend!

    1. I agree that coins are inadequate. In my city we have Street Sheets, pamphlets of emergency housing, food, etc information that you can easily photocopy and hand out. For a time I kept several in my bag and would give them to a homeless person I encountered who was asking for money. Felt more real and actually helpful than a bit of food or change.

  19. I feel much as Susan wrote, “…I feel uncomfortable averting my gaze and not facing head on what they are having to face.”

    I wonder if this person’s aggression was triggered by your gazing long enough and intimately enough that she felt you were too close to knowing what she was having to face. Thus, the intrusion.

    I volunteer at a survival center in my county. It is a wonderful place, and has no religious affiliation, which is rare and very comfortable to me. Working in the “free store” there, I have direct contact with a great many people in dire straits every day. I feel very grateful that this work has given me a way–finally–to look at my fellow humans in need without averting my gaze.

    1. I believe that this was exactly what happened. That’s how it felt. That it was in fact my recognition and sympathy that provoked her.

  20. Afraid that my comment may sound smug. It is not meant to be smug! I love this work because I can make honest authentic meaningful contact, and I am grateful for that.

  21. I probably would have cursed at her, quite honestly, without even blinking an eye. “What the f–k!” I don’t handle people touching me without my permission very well, let alone someone hitting me on my face.

    I had an epiphany once when I was trying to calm down an angry patient (I’m a retired RN). He was complaining about some aspect of his care, I can’t remember exactly what. He was also yelling at me, so that wasn’t helping me focus. I was trying to be patient but honestly, I had four other patients with equally important needs that had to be attended to, and well, no one likes being yelled at. Then he said, “You aren’t listening to me. You haven’t heard a word I’ve said. No one here is listening to me.” This took me aback. I said I was sorry to hear that, and sat down at his bedside and made sure I did hear what he was saying by repeating it back to him in my own words. Eventually, I got it right and he felt better. And he stopped yelling at me, at least for the rest of the day.

  22. The street gent a month or so ago who called out to you “Nice boater!” has been in the back of my mind, I had perceived him then as a threat of sorts, but now this!

    Good thing you’re Sturdy, good thing you cut your street/road teeth on that trip alone across India and have been building on that base ever since, but I find it especially positive that you reflect by asking yourself what part of this outcome did I contribute. Might she have perceived your brief flash of identity compassion as a highly coded street crime against HER? A glance of compassion instantly inverts to deserved retribution by physical violence?

    I love your ability to select exactly which frame to use in narrating [to yourself, and to us] the impact of experience on your life. You show us how this is a choice one can make for oneself. Reminds me of Emerson’s command to “…build your own world.”

    Stay strong!

  23. When I was a young woman, not long married, I was staying at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco with my husband. We were visiting from Chicago where we lived at the time. It was a cool, sunny, blue morning; we were walking from the Clift to breakfast. At the edge of Union Square my husband, all reassuringly protective 6’4″ of him, though I did not think of him that way at the time, decided he wanted his sweater. I stood in the sun at the Powell at Geary edge of Union Square waiting for him, not thinking of much of anything, just enjoying the sun and the passers-by going this way and that. Off in the distance down Powell Street there was suddenly shouting, I looked to see what it was, and saw a man in the distance on the side of Powell Street opposite Union Square waving his arms, running and shouting. He kept running, waving his arms, shouting as he moved up Powell toward Geary. I noticed him, but I did not think anything more of it as I stood there in the sun. The man kept running and shouting, he ran across Geary, veered suddenly across Powell toward Union Square, put up his arms across his chest and plowed into me at full speed. As I stood astonished and in pain he kept running and shouting up past me into the crowd and beyond into the city. A group of people gathered around me expressing concern, asking if I was alright, asking if I wanted to sit down. I am one of those people who generally wants to keep her feelings private, and I insisted I was fine. At this point my husband arrived and added his concern, but the man, clearly a mentally-ill man, was long gone. That moment made me feel vulnerable in what had seemed a benign, sunny world. Later events of more significance in my life have added to that feeling. Every day I work to find a place of compassion for myself and others that allows me to go on with my own life in a productive way, and to help those who I know are struggling. There are cracks some people fall through because of some form of mental illness. You are the person who just happened to cross the path of one of those people at the wrong moment. It is not you. It is not something you did or failed to do. It is the world, and it is not that we in this world are doing something so wrong other than, in my opinion, not providing nearly enough supporting safety nets for those who will never be all right no matter how hard we try to make them all right. I share your optimistic bent. Sometimes I marvel at its continued existence in my psyche, but I am solidly an optimist, and I am grateful to be one. I am sorry this happened to you. As my lovely friend Susan Champlin says, I hold your hand. The next time you walk down the street, I hold your hand.

  24. So sorry you endured this encounter. Most unsettling.

    You can try to not look too intently or for too long. May help. May not. Who can say for sure? Who’s judging and by which standards?

    One of my experiences took place on the Metro while riding from the Virginia suburbs into the District of Columbia. A youngish man seemed to feel I’d violated his space, because I’d deigned to glance his way. He directed me, in no uncertain terms, to look elsewhere.

    His tone of voice was quiet, direct, and deep, calling to mind the fiery growl of a dragon disturbed in his lair.

    Unable to move away physically (it was a morning train, crowded with commuters), I endeavored to give him all possible psychic space by averting my eyes and turning slightly away from him.

    A cat may well look at a king (or queen, as in your case) but, apparently, not at one evincing instability.

    Not sure if the encounter was particularly revelatory, for I do try to maintain a mindful state about the blessings in my life. I remember feeling blissful relief when exiting the train at the first, most opportune moment. Ah, freedom!

    You have a good and open heart. Still. Let’s be careful out there, okay? It’s a wild world.

  25. She did it because she knew you wouldn’t do anything. She probably feels evil, ugly, awful and worthless. She probably thought you were judging her. I grew up on Lakota reservations , which are the poorest, toughest mass of rural ghetto that you can ever imagine. A nod of the head of acknowledgment and brief smile is about the best thing you can do. To ignore someone is to invalidate their existence. Incidentially I managed to never be in a fight. No small achievement in that world. Peace!!!

    1. I read through all these comments. Lisa, you do a wonderful job of mixing, stiring, and provoking some of the best social commentary.
      I’m glad you take the time to blog. It helps us all. Thank you.

  26. I’m a pretty dedicated lurker, but I need to comment on this. I’m from New York City. I went to school in a truly sketchy, dangerous-once-you-get-four-blocks-away-from-campus section of Connecticut and in a really ritzy part of Washington, D.C. Point being, I encounter a lot of people who are less fortunate than I am, for different reasons.

    I tend to over-think my interactions with, well, everyone, and I never really know what to do. I’ve settled on making eye contact and smiling with everyone who crosses my path. I generally add a greeting, if it’s not too loud and it seems appropriate. I suppose there are people we’re conditioned to be wary of—not just the (presumed) homeless, but large men or people with pitbulls or whatever—but I’d be totally hurt if someone crossed the street when they saw me coming. I imagine it’s the same for everyone else.

    I know Significant Other and the Internet at large would probably disagree, but I think you did the right thing. Yes, safety is important, but so is curiosity and humanity. In any event, I’m glad you’re okay, Lisa.

  27. I was once knocked off a curb into oncoming traffic in DC by a man who was shouting at no one I could see. I still have the scars on my knees from hitting the pavement, but what I really remember was the car that stopped crosswise (risking being broadsided) to protect me from the traffic (about 8 inches from me)and the couple who picked me up, gathered my scattered belongings and got me to my office. It can be a scary world, but there are so many good people too.

  28. this piece really stuck a chord. working in a hospital environment, I am exposed to this special brand of weirdness and inappropriate response behaviour on a pretty regular basis, the reasons varying, but the result more or less like what you experienced. I have sort of blunted my ability to reflect on such an instance in any other way other than clinically, which is necessary at work, but I believe has changed the human in me forever as well.

  29. Having lived in a smaller city, I’ve had similar experiences, though none that involved physical contact, only verbal abuse. Usually they were the result of my refusing to give money to someone or showing my fear.

    You reacted exactly as I would have.

    Lynn, your story is lovely.

  30. When I worked in New York City, the sidewalks sometimes seemed like dangerous places: in Midtown a courier on foot shoved me out of his way as he walked north and I walked south; a rollerblader skated over my foot without looking back in response to my pained shriek; shoulder-checking on 5th Ave was standard fare.

    I didn’t think I’d ever get used to this behaviour until the time I fond myself on the giving end of a sidewalk shoulder check (I was distracted and immediately apologized to the woman I’d bumped). But the incident shook me up and I took the opportunity to reevaluate my humanity–I didn’t want to lose it on the sidewalk like loose change.

  31. I learned a long time ago – after being punched HARD in the arm by a passing homeless man – to steer clear of mentally ill people on the street. I still have compassion and send them a small prayer as I pass them, but I literally will cross the street now. And when something like that happens I think it’s best to not escalate the violence and craziness (like screaming back). Calling police would be appropriate depending on how bad the attack was.

    Though I still believe in the goodness of people I don’t get involved and try to “relate” with someone who is potentially violent. Today I gave $1.20 to a man who asked me for 20 cents on the street. I said “I’ll up you one – here’s $1.20” He was kind and grateful. Intuitively I knew he really needed the help.

    I think your response was great.

  32. Re #1: “….I am prone to examine every problem starting from, “Was this my fault?” You know, I like that quality in myself. I think I’ll keep it. I believe it leads to better answers.”

    The problem with that ‘is it my fault?’ response is that, though it appears to be coming from a ‘taking responsibility’ point of view, it is really coming from a self-centered point of view. And I hasten to add that we all do this and that this is not a criticism; it’s First World Western Entitlement that we are practically born with.

    Seldom in fact, is any situation about you (or me) of course! Learning to see and experience life from a gentle center (a ‘oneness’ without the New Age silliness) not only allows us to develop compassion but it also frees us from the spasms of self-centered (and totally unwarranted) guilt. AND (little bonus here) your vision becomes clearer and encompassing so you don’t have to have these distressing (for all involved) interaction sin the first place.

    Whatever it is – love, hate or anything in-between, it has nothing to do with ego-me. :)

    1. It is a first world response, I agree. But I have found that it prevents me from blaming others.

    2. Actually, what I was going for here was a THIRD way – neither blaming yourself or others. Wondering who is to blame is not only the wrong question but it lulls us into thinking we’re ‘doing something about it’ – whatever ‘it’ is. As a Buddhist (but this is open to anyone) I try to come from a space of compassion (for all participants) in the moment and to stay in that moment too (no ‘what ifs?) whilst cooling down the drama for all at the same time. Big job but I’m at baby steps. :)

  33. When I would give money to vagrants and beggars, my husband would warn me that they might only use the cash for drugs and alcohol. My response to him was that if there is a day of final judgement, I believe that God will ask me what I did with my money…not what they did with theirs. But a dear friend never gives cash, just keeps bottled water and a box of granola bars in the car, so that she never needs to turn away from the hungry or thirsty. There are always ways to help, large and small- just be careful out there!

  34. I think that our first reaction when something like that happens is to wonder if we are somehow at fault. You were not at fault. The woman, like so many street people, is mentally ill and is not functioning in a normal manner. I am a retired social worker, and I have learned how erratic people can be, and in that respect, very impulsive, and at times, dangerous. It is always shocking for those of us who are functionally normal and compassionate to encounter someone whose actions make no sense. I always think–there for the grace of God go I. And I am not particularly religious.

    1. I’m one of those who tends to always worry/question first if someone was my fault, and in myself I don’t see it as very useful (not that that keeps me from doing it!). But in a way I read Lisa here as “using” that tendency to look at things from a “now what was my part in this” questioning point of view, which seems more interesting and less like “I must have done something wrong, surely, because that’s just what I do.”

      Very interesting post and comments.


  35. About five years ago, a new attorney started in our office. She was young, pretty, fresh from law school, and we called her Alice because of the headband she wore to hold back her long hair.

    On her first day going to court in the Bronx, she encountered the guy who sits on a stoop and calls out “hey, hey, HEY!!” to every passerby, asks for money, and then curses you out when you don’t stop. We regulars knew to just cross the street the block before but we’d never seen him physically hassle anyone and he was smart enough not to follow us around the corner where the court officers could see him.

    When she went past, he yelled out at her, asking for money, cursed her out for ignoring him, and then he spat in her hair.

    She ran to the courthouse, flew into the first bathroom, and tried to scrub the spit our of her hair with water and paper towels.

    I met her that morning to show her the ropes, and she never said a word. She didn’t tell anyone for over a year. I imagine that she was too embarrassed, too afraid she’d provoked it, too afraid she’d become known throughout the courthouse as the lawyer who got spat on for her first day.

    Isn’t this what women do when they are raped, violated, or abused? We assume that somehow, some way, we provoked it/encouraged it/lacked the finesse to control it/asked for it.

    I don’t think your encounter had anything to do with you, Lisa. I think it was just a random, very unfortunate and sad moment that thankfully, was not much much more violent than it could have been. I don’t think she was an angel or that karma was trying to get your attention. I think that as a very sensitive and culturally aware person, you have tried intelligently to find a meaning within the randomness.

    1. I feel for that young female associate, having been one myself. Of course she didn’t say anything – if she had she probably knew that a good number of more seasoned people (lawyers and others) would have seen her as a whiner, princess, victim, etc. and never let the story go. She’d probably already run into classmates and professors who let her know that she wasn’t wanted in the profession (at least by them) and was fighting internalizing the shame….

  36. Walked out of the salon one day and a homeless women came up to me and asked for some spare change. I said, “sorry I don’t have any”. It was true. I spent every dime at the salon. Her response was “Beech, why ya sa mean ta mee”. I see her most times when I go into the salon. She smiles at me and still calls me a “beech”, but she doesn’t ask for for spare change anymore.

  37. Two things in my life shape my reaction to these situations, in equal measures.

    The first is just how emotionally draining it can be to allow myself to engage with street people. I used to live in a city where you couldn’t turn a corner without someone begging for money, sleeping in a doorway or just sitting on the ground with a hat out. Occasionally I would let myself interact with someone, but when I hadn’t steeled myself against noticing them it would get overwhelming.

    Secondly, one of those people used to be my aunt. She has a mental illness that she used to fight treatment on, and spent the better part of a decade on the streets and addicted to drugs. We didn’t know where she was, whether she was alive, safe, or if she was bleeding in a gutter somewhere. Everyone else I meet is someone else’s someone they care for. I would hope my aunt met more than people who ignored her existence when she lived on the streets.

    1. Thank you for the personal component. I am sure this woman was someone’s aunt. I hope yours is now safe and sound.

  38. I am so sorry this happened to you, and am glad you are safe. When I was doing my Psychiatric rotation in nursing school, the instructor told us to speak to the patients, as “silence is always interpreted negatively” and could provoke them to become hostile or violent. There is never a reason for someone in their “right mind” to attack another.
    I hope you recover quickly from such a shock. xo

  39. I’ve been thinking about this all day somewhere in the back of my mind. The last 3 years I was living in VA, in a town where it seemed that 80% of population was unemployed, just out of prison and drunk. I was a woman in the Army uniform, with a small child and a nice car. Every trip to a gas station was an encounter of some sorts with a variety of healthy looking adult males hitting me up for cash. I am a combat veteran, I can be very scary without a single word spoken. A direct eye contact seemed to be the easiest way to have them running away and staying away. After a while they stopped approaching me altogether. And then I was medically discharged, out of the job, waiting on my disability pay ( still waiting on that, 2 years later). I lost my house, my car, my pride and a little of my mind. I don’t know how we survived it. All my things are gone – sold, pawned, bartered away. There were many times when I thought that I have to go on a street and beg for money, because I don’t know what to feed my son with. It never came to it. Close enough, but no. Just like it never came to executing a brilliant plan on bank robbery. Some things you just don’t do, because there is no return from there. It is still hard, but I know now from being on the both sides – there is no reason to give money to beggars on the streets. People that truly need help will find a way, people begging are the ones that are too lazy and too addicted to do anything better.

    1. “People that truly need help will find a way, people begging are the ones that are too lazy and too addicted to do anything better.”

      Owch! Have you heard of the concept of social capital? The idea is that people are privileged from before birth by the families they’re born into i.e. a mother mature enough to cope, two parents, good food and health care, a quiet space, resources and encouragement to do homework, a safe environment to build confidence etc. etc. This leads to people who have more ability to cope, more assertiveness, knowledge of the system etc even when they’re down and out.

      Contrast that with the experience of a child from a disadvantaged background – they have massive barriers to getting ahead, no matter how clever or hard working. (It’s not impossible, just much harder).

    2. I think we support Kat in her voiced opinion, despite harshness, given what she went through. Societal causes, and the roots of human behavior are so complex that many idea might be true. Since we don’t know what’s true, I’d like to give space to a wide spectrum.

      Which is not to say that I disagree with your thoughts on privilege, Eleanorjane.

  40. Lisa,

    I once was getting on the metro in Brussels, felt a slight tug on my purse, and swung out hard with my arm straight, heel of my hand leading. As I turned the direction I swung I saw a young 12-13 year old Roma girl with her hand still caught in the strap of my purse. The heel of my hand cuffed her cheek and we both were shocked and hurt. To this day, some 15-20 years later, I am shocked, a little shamed by my reaction, but mostly grateful.

    The Blake quote resonates more and more.

  41. I did not read what others commented above, because the stories were so long.
    I probably would have said OUCH too and continued walking and washed my face asap.
    We have homeless people over here too, and I avoid walking around the places they camp in.
    This is a big problem all over. As an individual, there is very little I can do about it.
    So sad, but true.

  42. This is a sad story… And I think your expression of ‘luck’ is ironic… You are lucky… Not fortunate… Just lucky …you’re engagement with this persons predicament compared to your smugness at your own luck turns my stomach…

    1. I use fortunate as a more weighty version of lucky. And I don’t think gratitude is the same as smugness.

  43. I am not sure how to respond to this post and yet it has stayed in my mind. So many have made wise and cogent comments. I believe I would have blamed myself for perhaps gazing too intently, and perhaps violating her own sense of self and worth, although that would never have been my intention. In the end I would have seen it as a gift.

    1. I think it is worth trying to see a bigger picture and wondering at the how the cards have been dealt. I also think it is a normal reaction to feel grateful for not being on the street. And perhaps it is good to strive to rise above any anger or animosity, or to “come from a place of compassion.” But I think there is selfishness in that approach, too, because I think it’s gratifying in some way. And I don’t believe that looking within for “anger, or feelings of hopelessness, desperation, or injustice” has anything to do with why people are homeless.

      With sincere respect, I think the assertion that this assault was a gift is ridiculous. Is the “gift” relative to the degree of assault? If this woman had slashed you with a knife, what would the gift have been? If one of your children had been harmed by a senseless assault, what gift then? If a woman is raped, there is no gift; she is a victim of violent behavior, and if the assailant is mentally ill, that fact does nothing to ameliorate the degree of violence and its affect on the victim. And it is not incumbent upon her to view her assault as a gift in order to heal.

      Sometimes, homeless people are simply “bad” people, and would be (or were) even if they had a job, a home, financial independence, etc. That’s true of every segment of the population.

      As far as trying to figure out what you did to set off the woman you encountered, who knows? A nod and a smile is the bane of one for whom an averted gaze is desired. For another, a hoped-for glance that isn’t given is perhaps enough to tilt the balance.

  44. Think I would have reacted the same as yourself.Here we have mostly that problem in our large cities,especially sad that more of our younger folk are joining the homeless,the charities set up to help them are underfunded + limited accommodation.

  45. I am reading every single syllable in these comments, learning sooo much from all your generous replies. Something keeps bugging me: LPC what are you going to do when you encounter this woman again?

    1. I doubt she will recognize me, so I plan not to look at her face. That’s what upset her, I believe now.

  46. Because I walk my dogs daily, and because some of the neighboring state’s excons are given a bus ticket here on release, I see a lot of homeless people. My approach is a breezy “Good morning!” and nothing more. I know some of them are mentally ill and others have violent pasts. I try to avoid close encounters.

  47. huh. Had this happened to me a year ago, I would have moved quickly away from her, from fear of being attacked, washed my face and be grateful.
    But this year I have been meditation with a beautiful sutra called “Know that the other person is you”, so I find myself wondering: where in me is there anger, or feelings of hopelessness, desperation, or injustice? Homelessness is a complicated issue. I am surprised to read such harsh comments here,to be honest.

    1. I think that’s why I looked – it was the flash of a woman who has suffered. Not that I’ve suffered anything so dreadful, nothing like violence, but there was some resonance.

  48. Huh. What a lot of conversation evoked by a simple occurrence of shit happens. Fortunate that you were in no way damaged.

  49. It is indeed an unfortunate, uncomfortable, challenging incident. Fill your heart with sheer compassion, gratitude, and a prayer for this unfortunate soul. Keep Purell in your handbag at all times for obvious reasons. I wouldn’t assume substance abuse offhand, but I wouldn’t rule it out. Society has changed. I haven’t. I was terrified of ending like her while iras going through a divorce. My friend talked me out of it. I went back to college with the little money my lousy attorney got Asa settlement. Best choice I ever made as an investment currently I am earning a six digit salary, but I may have ended just like this homeless woman. Only God knows what happens to women when they find themselves destitute. You may have reminded her of herself at a different time. Who knows. It was not your fault. Get pass this and life goes on. If you aver see her again, cross the street. That’s what I would do!

  50. There is the consideration that this poor woman had a mental/physical illness such as Tourette’s, and in no way was feeling any anger or hostility, but simply the inability to control her body, which could be why she was on the street in the first place. It is hard to find decent employment and understanding sometimes when your body is prone to doing the oddest things at the wrong moments.

  51. The timing on reading your post is interesting, we just returned home from our regular shift serving dinner at the city’s homeless shelter. I say that only because I learned over the years that the mental health issues among this population are deeper than even I thought. I wasn’t struck, but had my wrist grabbed in a vise-like grip by a homeless person at another rescue mission years ago in another city. In speaking about that incident with the director of this facility he was extremely vocal that my tendency to engage wasn’t necessarily in my best interests.
    And the germaphobe in me would have done the very same thing you did. Perhaps more so, if possible.
    I’m sorry this happened, Lisa. I have learned a lot form reading your post and the comments.

  52. She probably has Tourette’s. Further, she may keep her hands covered by her sleeves so that she doesn’t injure herself when they swing out without warning.

  53. What an interesting post and what a range of reactions.

    We are trying to make sense of a sad and complex situation where there is no correct response.

    Sometimes poetry says it well and succinctly:

    What all school children learn,
    Those to whom evil is done
    Do evil in return

    W H Auden

    1. Agree, no documented transmission of HIV via clothing. But would have done the same thing you did for other stuff (even that would be rare with such brief contact) But also to mentally wash away what had just happened.

  54. I’m sorry this happened to you.

    A clearly disturbed guy on a bike screamed at (and almost ran into) my sister on a sidewalk in Provincetown. She screamed back at him “yell at me again and I’ll knock you off your bike!” surprising all three of us. He was surprised, I think, because no one ever confronted him and we were surprised because it’s never OK to threaten someone – or, in your case, hit them in the face.

  55. Kudos! One thing I’ve taught my daughter about living/walking urban is that people often say and do things because someone did/said those things to them or because they’re tired and lack a good place to sleep or because they don’t have the medication and food that they need. She’s growing up with immense compassion for the homeless in SF even though she’s been yelled at and spat on in her short life so far. One time when a man was yelling towards, but not at, her and me on MUNI, she turned to me (as we moved to another part of the streetcar) and said “he probably didn’t get enough sleep, I yell when I don’t get enough sleep.” Someone spitting on my daughter’s shoes – eh, not a big deal, shoes can be cleaned, more of a teachable moment about our society and culture that does not, as a community, take adequate care of those who need help, and also, like you noticed, an opportunity to be grateful for what she and I and our family *have*. Lucky, indeed!

  56. Unless the sleeve were dripping with fluid – which you swallowed or it hit you on an open sore on your face I wouldn’t worry about catching a disease, and certainly not HIV. You did not deserve to be purposely hit, as no one does. You will never know the true ‘why’ of it — was it a nervous tic, an spasm on her part? deliberate violence? was it deliberate? anger at being openly pitied? done in irrationality? You will never know the ‘why’ of it.

    1. I suppose a lesson in the end is that one doesn’t know why, and it’s asking the question more than the answer that’s valuable. At least for me.

  57. Lisa,
    One of my co-workers was punch in the face, through an open car window by a homeless man in downtown Los Angeles. The man was clearly mentally ill, as I assume was the lady who slapped you. How sad that this woman was on the street, in this condition, like so many others. I wish that the there was some drug delivery system that could keep these people on their meds.

  58. I want to add that I know only one homeless person personally. He wanders the streets of my hometown, often seen by others who grew up with him in that mid sized Texas town. He grew up with love in a secure middle class family. He was a popular and well liked student in junior high and high school. He was a fine athlete who exhibited true kindness and care toward others. At some point in his young adulthood, he began to suffer from mental illness. He ended up being homeless with untreated illness. I mention this case just to highlight that even those born with social capital (a concept I think is accurate) can end up on the streets, much like the woman Lisa encountered.

  59. Sorry Lisa, but she would’ve got a fat loogey to the back of her head. Luckily, God blessed me with 10-sec delay and choice. :)

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